Books 22 Nov 2009 11:02 pm
Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, offers some excellent insights into various genre fictions and into his own life and writing process. I was familiar with Chabon by name only before reading this, but he made me a fan through his introspective, thoughtful pieces.
If the essays can be said to have a theme, it is that genre fiction is as deserving of respect as more “literary” efforts. Again and again, Chabon expends more time than most serious critics might in examining the underpinnings of works as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, and the little-known ghost stories of M.R. James.
The piece that first drew me to the book is a thoughtful appraisal of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where Chabon argues that the book is not science-fiction but horror, a thesis that will be little doubted by anybody who has read the post-apocalyptic novel. I gave this piece to my Advanced Placement English students after they had completed The Road; many were flummoxed by Chabon’s dense analysis, and most thought that perhaps he tried a little too hard to move the novel out of one genre ghetto and into another. (One of Chabon’s arguments is that mainstream authors are permitted once detour into sci-fi, and that this is how McCarthy’s latest has been interpreted.)
“The Recipe for LIfe” is one of several essays to touch on the Jewish tradition of golems, and Chabon does a good job of teasing out a metaphor for the writing life. Golems pop up several more times, most notably in the book’s longest piece, “Golems I Have Known,” where his intentional blurring of fact and fiction reminded me forcibly of Orson Scott Card’s “Lost Boys,” which depends on the same trick.
Probably the highest praise I can offer about Maps & Legends is that it makes me want to seek out the original works that Chabon discusses, including those I have already read. I have tracked down (but not yet read) the James’ short story, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and I definitely want to sample Chabon’s own “Final Solution,” his entry into the Sherlock Holmes canon.
This is a highly satisfying read. If it tries a little too hard to throw open the doors of academia and demand entry for comic books, horror and sci-fi, at least the author has his heart in the right place, and the writing chops to make even the most snooty of readers sit up and take notice of the literature of the hoi polloi.